„It was practically impossible for Iranians to stay neutral in the war“

Fatameh Masjedi is a PhD research fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. She joined the research group “Urban violence  in Middle East” in August 2011. The core of her project is to investigate collective violence as well as social and political struggles in different neighbourhoods of the Iranian cityTabriz between 1905 and 1920. 

On the 1st November 1914 Ahmad Schah declared the strict neutrality of Persia. But I guess with fighting Russian and Ottoman troops in the country it was impossible to stick to this neutrality?

Fatemeh Masjedi (photo: private)

Fatemeh Masjedi (photo: private)

Ahmad Shah declared the strict neutrality of Iran in November first in 1914. However, the foreign minister Ala al Saltanah’s negotiations with the Ottoman and Russian embassies were not successful. The two powers competition over Azerbaijan forced Iran to be allies to one of the powers in the war. The Russians did not agree to withdraw their troops from Azerbaijan because they wanted to take care of the security of the Russian citizens in Azerbaijan region. Besides they feared if their troops would leave the region, Ottoman troops would replace them. On the other hand, the Ottomans argued that Russian troops in the region threatened their borders. Therefore it was practically impossible for Iranians to stay neutral in the war. A day after the shah declaration, the prime minster of the time, Mustawfi al Mamalik, sent out the declaration of neutrality to the embassies in Iran and the governors of the provinces. The next day the British sent a warship to Karun River in Khuzestan in the southwest of Iran. The Ottomans also sent their troops and artillery to Umm al Rasas in front of Muhammarh’s customs. A day after the declaration the Russian commander in Tabriz arrested the Ottoman as well as Austrian consuls and shut down their offices in Tabriz. There was wave of opposition against the central power (Russia, Britain) in Iran, then even though Iranians already have had a sense of enmity against them in the country before.

You are working on Political Violence and Social Disorder in the Persian city Tabriz between 1906 and 1920 – that means including the times of the First World War. Tabriz had already been occupied by Russian forces in 1909. How did the war affect everyday life in Tabriz?

Tabriz was under siege since 1909. There was anarchy all over Iran and the commerce networks were shut down, while poverty was omnipresent and increasing. In 1911, when the Russians arrived in Tabriz, the agitated people defended themselves against them. The Russians had consuls in Tabriz, Khoi and Urumia in the province of Azerbaijan. At the time, their troops were violating citizens’ property rights. The Russian consul in Urumia, Wedensky, interfered in a Muslim woman’s marriage and forced her to refuse her beloved one and marry a Caucasian Muslim man in Russia. The woman later paid 30 thousand Toman (Iranian gold coins) for being allowed to marry with her fiancé. Wedensky shared the gained black money with his counterpart in Tabriz, Preobrachensky. The Russians also created tensions between the ethnic and religious minorities and the agitation of groups against each other in the province. For instance, they stirred up Kurds against Assyrians/Christians, which resulted in many Christians getting killed in this conflict within a short time. Furthermore, public hangings of constitutionalists in Tabriz aggravated the discontent of the people with the Russians. Tabrizis in particular were provoked by the siege of the city by Russian troops. On several occasions they forced women to take off their hejab (veil) in public. Therefore many women were compelled to stay at home and did not appear in public. During this time Russians also began to arrest Iranians who were known for having pro-German affiliations. They would send these people to Jolfa for trial.

The famous famine was from 1917-1918, but the food crisis begun a year before and lasted until the summer of 1919. The condition in Tabriz was bad. The prices of everything went up. There had been a drought in the winter and spring which brought only small wheat crops. The poor people were starving and suffering from the shortage of food. But in Tabriz, compared to Soudjboulak and the rest of Azerbaijan, hungry women were fighting for weeks to get bread at bakeries and so the food conditions were better. The American Iranian Relief Committee helped to feed twenty five thousand people every day in Tabriz in addition to the loan given for the region of Azerbaijan. Another difficulty that Tabrizis were struggling with besides hunger and famine was epidemic typhus.

When did the First World War officially end in Persia and how did it influence the regional structures of power?

The political influence of Russians ended when the Russian revolution in March 1917 unfolded and they had to evacuate their armies from the region. By this time, the Ottoman challenge was beaten off. But the British succeeded to stay up to February 1921 when they installed the military dictatorship of Reza Khan, who subsequently made the Pahlavi regime in 1925.

Do you want to know more? Join us at the WeberWorldCafé “Narrating the First World War – Experiences and Reports from a Transregional Perspective” and ask Fatameh Masjedi in person!


Gesche Schifferdecker

Gesche Schifferdecker works as a press officer with a focus on online communication at the Max Weber Stiftung. She is editor of various scientific Blogs (e.g. trafo.hypotheses.org and wwc.hypotheses.org) and organizes the „WeberWorldCafé“.

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